Everyone seems to have an opinion on veganism and why they chose to follow it or not. It brings up a number of related issues including diet and lifestyle as well as the obvious animal rights and environmentalism.
As I see it there are two somewhat distinct forms of veganism that have emerged in the current socio-political environments of the West. The traditional vegans come from a more politicised perspective of ethical concerns over the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries and the exploitation of animals within them. The second type of veganism, broadly speaking, seems to derive from ‘wellness culture’ i.e. dieting, ‘clean eating’ and is largely based around health concerns and the belief that the vegan diet can improve one’s overall health. These are not always totally distinct in practice and it is possible to go from one to the other (e.g. initially doing it for health but then seeing the ethical reasoning as well). The reason I make the distinction is because I think it is important when considering veganism in relation to disordered eating.
There is evidence that there are higher rates of veganism and vegetarianism in women in treatment for eating disorders than for the general or equivalent (i.e. women of the same age) population. A part of this may be down to demographic crossover in those likely to develop an eating disorder and those likely to follow these diets more generally – as in, teenage girls and young women. We know that 63% of those following a vegan diet in the UK are women and the age group most likely to be vegan are 18-24 years old. Those most likely to develop and seek treatment for an eating disorder are women (up to 75%) and the most likely age for onset is 16-17 for anorexia and 18-19 for bulimia.
Given this information, one could intuit a relationship between the two. Certainly, there is a clear causal link between the diet industry’s heavy targetting of women and their likelihood to develop eating disorders. We know that choosing to go on a diet can put you at risk of developing an eating disorder due to its restrictive nature, rule based logic and reinforcement of negative attitudes towards having a larger body. To expand, I don’t think that all eating disorders are necessarily caused by dieting alone but I do think this is a major trigger in going on to develop an eating disorder, particularly binge eating disorder and anorexia. Restricting your food intake can lead to binging on food later on down the line and this seems to be a fairly common response, though to varying degrees of severity.
But is veganism a diet? Or just a lifestyle choice – an ethical choice even? I think the answer is that it can be all three. Many people do decide to go vegan simply because they believe it will help them to lose weight. Some are explicit about this and others hide their intentions beneath the higher moral arguments. I think the rise of veganism within ‘wellness culture’ means that all kind of erroneous health claims come alongside it now which increase instances of orthorexic thinking around it. Orthorexia is a type of disordered eating in which one becomes obsessively rigid around what is considered ‘healthy’ or unprocessed foods and the pursuit of eating only foods deemed to fit into this category. I think it has a lot of links with lifestyle veganism, ‘cleaning eating’ trends and the ideology of wellness. The thought process goes that one can control one’s health by eating a certain type of diet that is normally very restrictive. A more measured concern about processed foods can become cult-like and means the people vulnerable to developing eating disorders can easily fall prey to it.
Many people with eating disorders will use fad diets as a way of justifying their restrictive food habits. It is worryingly socially acceptable to claim to be following a diet as an excuse to restrict your eating. The social acceptability of veganism due to its actual ethical concerns means that it can be an excellent cover for restrictive eating habits in some people. It is less easy to challenge than a more obviously damaging diet because it can genuinely be a healthy lifestyle or ethical choice.
However, I don’t think there is much evidence that becoming vegan or vegetarian will lead to developing an eating disorder in and of itself. In the studies I linked to earlier in this piece, it seems that many of the eating disorder patients chose to become vegan/vegetarian after the onset of their eating disorder, meaning it may well have been chosen as a form of restriction. Many people live as a vegan without any form of disordered eating at all and there are also many vegans who are vegan due to their strongly held beliefs around animal welfare and the environment.
It is true that the current meat and dairy industries impact the environment in deeply detrimental ways and are not sustainable in the long term. The treatment of animals on this scale is obviously causing them enormous amounts of harm and suffering and treating them as mere objects or capital rather than living creatures. My personal belief is that this will need to stop if we are to have any significant progress on slowing climate disaster. The treatment of animals within capitalism deeply concerns me and shows, to me, the strongest possible disregard not only for the animals themselves but for all living things on the planet.
This is why I consider myself a vegan – it aligns with my political beliefs around the environment, animal rights and capitalism. However, I also acknowledge that this action in and of itself is not enough and that market logic cannot be resolved through differing market demands. The logic of capital facilitates all of the ethical violations objected to by vegans and so that is the most pressing thing to be challenged more generally. For this reason it does not concern me if an individual makes a decision not to be vegan for whatever reason. I think it more important that they politically align themselves with veganism than that they always practice it and make certain consumer choices that may or may not be available to them.
I have been vegetarian for over 10 years and I began to eat fully vegan around a year and a half ago, pre-dating my eating disorder by around 6 months. In my recovery I have not always chosen to be strictly vegan because of the ways in which I know I used it as an excuse within my eating disorder. I did not chose to be vegan because I thought it would help me lose weight, as some do, but when I was offered food or wanted to tell myself I could not eat, it was a helpful way to do so. I think it’s useful to be honest about this – perhaps later on down the line I can go back to being more strict but I know at the moment I need to remove any excuse to restrict my eating. However, due to the more long term nature of my vegetarianism, I don’t feel that sticking to this has the same restrictive nature. I have been vegetarian my entire adult life and don’t actually know how to cook for myself any other way!
I think on an individual level only the person with the eating disorder can really have insight into whether they chose veganism because of restriction or because of their moral beliefs. I believe it can also be both, as it was for me. I wouldn’t presume to judge anyone who stopped being vegan entirely in their recovery, if that is what is most helpful and healthy for them. Those in eating disorder treatment should definitely consider whether their veganism is currently suitable for them. There are other ways to contribute outside of food choices and recovery is always the most important thing at the end of the day. It might be possible to reintroduce veganism at a later date or it may be that this type of restriction will always be a trigger for someone. Again, I think this is very individual and should not be judged.
That said, there are a growing number of vegan options available now which can make things a lot easier. There are lots of vegan junk foods out there these days which can be a great challenge for anyone in recovery and one of the ways I’ve been challenging myself and, hey, even enjoying it these days! One of the important parts of recovery is making no foods ‘off limits’ and eating food you are/were afraid of – usually because you thought it would make you gain lots of weight/had too many calories/was too unhealthy. I would say this is possible within veganism for some people but, again, it depends on the thought process and reasoning behind the decision more so than any generalisations.
I’m interested to hear perspectives from vegans with and without eating disorder/eating disorder history and how they feel about this question!